Author James C. Nicholson’s latest book Racing for America (University Press of Kentucky, 2021) immerses a reader in the “roaring twenties,” a tumultuous decade wedged between the devastation of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The twenties were a time for renewal and high-flying stocks bought with little collateral.  Americans generally rebelled against convention and flouted the Eighteenth Amendment by making bathtub gin and frequenting speakeasies.  Women were exercising their new legal right to vote and many were dancing the Charleston in skimpy flapper outfits that would have been scandalous only a few years before.

Americans were also treated to amazing new technologies like commercial radio.  KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the first radio station, with its historic initial broadcast of the Cox-Harding presidential election of 1920.  As a result, it was soon possible for the masses to hear reports about the three major sports of the era–Major League Baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  The fledgling National Football League had been organized in Canton, Ohio, in 1920, but its immense popularity lay far in the future, and the National Basketball League was not founded until 1946.

In this milieu of hope and technological innovation, a horse race, a match race concocted by August Belmont II and featuring the recent Kentucky Derby and Epsom Derby winners, took place.  The equine dual captivated the peoples of the United States and Great Britain in the weeks and days leading up to the event on October 20, 1923 at New York’s Belmont Park. It was not the American Revolution redux, but it definitely stoked competitive juices in both nations, particularly since British bloodstock breeders widely considered American racehorses to be of uncertain and inferior heritage.

Nicholson, who has written three previous books with a horse racing theme, all with historical overlays, has masterfully chronicled the developments and potpourri of inimitable characters associated with the match race between 1923 Kentucky Derby winner Zev and 1923 Epsom Derby winner Papyrus.  He has done so within the context of the often-corrupt politics of the times, mainly because Harry F. Sinclair, the founder of Sinclair Oil and a key player in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, owned Zev. 

It is difficult today to imagine the fervor that a match race pitting champion 3-year-old colts from the United States and Great Britain would enflame in both countries.  But it did.  Even if a reader knows the race outcome in advance, knowing does not detract because accounts of interactions among trainers, jockeys, owners, the press, and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic keep the story moving along. 

Almost a hundred years later, the Zev-Papyrus race is still a compelling tale that until now was mostly lost in the passage of time.

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